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Hardtack & Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life

By John D. Billings

Images of Civil War soldiers in camp usually feature men sitting around a roaring fire, laughing as they tell stories, enjoying the fraternity of fighting men. We are drawn to such scenes. Not only do they take us far away from the horrors of the battlefield, the idea that hardened veterans can unite as a band of brothers is also appealing to our need to sanitize war. However, though a spirit of comradeship animated many camps, every regiment had its share of rivalries, resentments and jealousies. A close reading of even the most nostalgic memoirs and regimentals reveals how the grind of everyday life in the army could have an explosive impact on the men in the ranks.

John D. Billings’ Hardtack & Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life is one such account. Long considered one of the finest accounts penned by a Union soldier, Hardtack & Coffee reveals how the individual struggle for survival, which depended upon collective sacrifice, could badly divide even the closest of comrades.

Billings, a veteran of the Army of the Potomac, wanted his readers to see the war from the bottom rung of the rank and file. Grand strategic movements found in officer memoirs are absent in Billings’ narrative, which is driven instead by detailed descriptions of ordinary soldiers in camp, on the march and in battle. It is unfortunate that Hardtack & Coffee was not released during the war. The book would have been the perfect survival guide for any new recruit, allowing him to prepare for everything from lice to army rations. Billings’ description of the strategies that privates used to survive could be mistaken today as good old-fashioned folklore.

There is, however, a brutal honesty in his writing about the harshness and unpredictability of army life and its mind-numbing dullness and its aggravating restrictions. Some of his descriptions, including a military execution in 1863, are deeply disturbing.

Hardtack & Coffee reminds us that around every Civil War campfire were soldiers who felt a unique bond that originated within the living conditions of army life, but it was those very conditions that largely created divisions among men who thought some of their comrades shirked their duties, hoarded supplies or received favoritism from officers. Billings intended for us to remember his comrades as a band of brothers, but he did not want us to forget that they squabbled and fought like all siblings.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.